It’s fairly safe to say that, around 2001, the sketch show was all but dead on TV. After a champion run in the ’70s and ’80s, thanks to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, sketch comedy was largely limited to a handful of cable shows and, well, Saturday Night Live. So how did the sketch show return, and return so quickly?
It’s true that sketch shows never passed away entirely, but there was a rise and fall. For example, between 1993 and 1995, a string of sketch shows, from The Kids In The Hall to The State, went off the air for various reasons. Either the team needed a break, offers from Hollywood were pulling them apart, or they just got canceled. Sketch groups were still on TV, but they tended to focus more on plotted shows, Reno 911! being a key example.
Part of it is simply changing times and changing tastes. For example, this was the era of the multi-cam sitcom; NBC alone had Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, NewsRadio, Mad About You and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was simpler to build a sitcom or a variety show around one comedian than it was to build a show around a sketch group.
Similarly, it was easier and more lucrative for edgier comedians to record HBO specials, or go straight to movies, than it was for a group to land a production deal. It didn’t help that Wayne’s World kicked off a somewhat unfortunate boom of SNL characters going to the big screen. By the early 2000s, there wasn’t much available for sketch comedy fans.
Enter Dave Chappelle
The first step in the return of the sketch comedy was Dave Chappelle. Chappelle’s Show is hard to overstate in terms of influence; it put Chappelle into a level of stardom he turned out to be uncomfortable with, it gave Comedy Central a needed hit, and most importantly, it was something genuinely different. It helped that he could riff on celebrities like Rick James and find the talent in people such as Charlie Murphy:
Sketch comedy had been associated with the alternative comedy of the ’90s, dense, wacky and, by and large, safe. It didn’t help that, for a while, the goal was to try and create the next Wayne and Garth. Chappelle’s Show happily confronted racial issues, needling its audience and mercilessly calling out the pretensions of everyone from well-meaning white left-wingers to Chappelle himself. Even the network found itself getting the rough edge of Chappelle’s tongue, although that didn’t stop them from enjoying the money.
The show essentially went off the air in 2005. But it not only reinvigorated sketch comedy, it did so at the perfect time.
Flipping on YouTube
In February 2005, a rather important moment in comedy history struck, without much notice; YouTube was launched. It’s telling that since the arrival and meteoric rise of YouTube, sketch comedy has risen with it. YouTube is an audience for comedy that can’t be rivaled; the site sees visits from one seventh of the entire planet, every single day, and a short sketch that can be watched over a lunch hour can catch on in an instant.
It also, as the site grew, achieved something important: It made sketch comedy something you could actually get meaningfully paid for. A successful sketch collects ad revenue, and allows troupes such as Smosh and Epic Meal Time to deliver absurdly specific comedy and have it as a job:
That’s filtered over to television, especially basic cable. And the return of the sketch has meant a truly superb number of comedians getting more time and more visibility. So, for once, we have something to thank the Internet for.